My son grew up in Woodhaven, Michigan. When he was about five, I was at the ATM machine at National Bank one day and noticed a card above the ATM machine. It was about the size of a catalog card and had calligraphic writing on it. That was my first inkling that we were about to get new neighbors. The Mazda Company opened its first U.S. auto manufacturing plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, our adjacent little “town” and most of the incoming people from Japan moved into Woodhaven.
One morning, not long after that, I heard my son’s voice in the garage. I went out to see who he was talking to. A little boy, who didn’t speak much English. He came quite often and, after a few weeks, he’d picked up enough language skill that the two of them could converse as they played.
Some months after that, we received a new influx of residents, this time from Korea. I’m not sure where they worked, but, one day, along came another boy, a Korean boy, seeking a playmate. The Japanese boy told him to go home. I didn’t fully understand why because the Korean boy had just appeared and there was no time for them to quarrel or take a dislike to each other’s personalities. It was just “go home”.
I explained that everyone was welcome at my house and the Japanese boy put down whatever toy he had in his hand and walked away. The Korean boy didn’t feel comfortable and left as well.
Worried about this, I visited the Japanese boy’s house to talk to his parents. They were very polite, assured me that their son like my son, but they were also concerned that their son not be a bother. “He’s not a bother,” I said. But I knew that wasn’t the heart of the problem. They were being polite, not open.
Neither boy came back. “Where’s Tiko,” my son asked. “He’s gone home and I don’t think he can come back,” I said. A few days later, he asked again. “His parents want him to stay home more,” I said. The third time he asked, I figured out that he thought something to drive the boy away. Guilt comes early to the young. “It’s not you, sweetie. It’s his parents. And you’ve never met them, so it can’t be because of you.” After that, he didn’t ask again.
I thought about my own moves. When I was traveling as a pre-schooler, I played with whoever was around. I often didn’t know the language — French, German, Italian — I never stayed long enough to learn more than a few words before I was off to another country with a different language. I also didn’t pay any attention to nationality, not even German (it was not long after WWII). My parents wouldn’t have supported that in any way, despite the hell they’d both gone through in that war.
In my older moves — to Canada and then to the U.S. — I tried to adjust, but I’ve never really been fully Canadian or fully American. I’m also no longer fully Scottish or British. Sometimes I feel as if I’m swimming in the middle of the Atlantic, not able to belong fully anywhere. That’s because I did adjust, partly, but kept some of where I’d lived before.
When I think back on that incident in our garage in Woodhaven, I am sadly aware of how we bring our baggage with us. If we’re young enough, we inherit and bring our parents’ baggage, too. Japan and Korea have a troubled history. Those boys, even as young as four or five or six, carried that then. They’re in their forties now. They must be because my son is in his forties now. I wonder if they ever left that baggage behind.